Have you ever wondered whether friendships at work actually foster a healthy workforce?

Friends are an integral part of our social life. We have various types of friends who we interact with on a daily basis, who play various roles in our lives. Some give advice, some push you to be your best self, some are good listeners, and some are just acquaintances.

Human beings are social animals and the truth is that work is a social institution where long-term relationships are formed, be it networking relationships, friendships or even romantic relationships. You might even have friendships at work that are strictly professional – colleagues-turned-friends who have your best interests at heart, giving you advice on how to approach a big meeting or suggestions on how to compile a report.

Friendships at work may naturally help you feel more engaged at work and deeply integrated into the workplace culture. While these types of relationships have considerable benefits, however, there may be a few downsides you may not be aware of.

How are friendships at work defined?

Out of 3000 Americans who are working full-time, 82% have said that they consider one of their coworkers to be their friend. However, this definition of ‘considering someone to be your friend’ is tricky because it doesn’t define if you’re just friendly with someone or whether you’re actually friends with them.

Gallup, the global analytics and advice firm, has defined work friendships with a broader scope. In their efforts to identify key dimensions that describe great workgroups, they questioned more than 80,000 managers about whether they had a best friend at work and found that only 30% of them do.
Out of all the questions in the study, most struggled with this question because even though they have many friends at work, they had trouble identifying a best friend among their coworkers because the word ‘best’ implies exclusivity.

Experts describe three levels of work connections that progress with time – the acquaintance, the companion, and the best friend. The acquaintance is just a work contact, someone who shares insights about the organization, its decision-makers, and job-related tasks in a professional capacity. It’s important, however, to develop better friendships at work and achieve a certain level of self-transformation.

This is the case with the companion or the work buddy, who is invested in the work you do and takes time to give you career advice and constructive feedback. Since these conversations with companions center on goals and receiving professional support, they can greatly benefit your career.

It’s even better, in fact, if you have a best friend at work because they are a friend both inside and outside work. It’s a more deeply rooted workplace friendship with an emotional connection of mutual trust, admiration, and genuine care.

How do you develop effective friendships at work?

Research carried out by the Olivet Nazarene University about friendships at work revealed that out of the 3000 full-time employed Americans surveyed, only 15% report having real friendships at work and 20% out of the 3000 said they’d like more work friends.

So, how do you develop effective friendships at work that could give way to effective self-transformation, engagement at work, and better performance?

Forbes lists out a few ways you can create friendships at work to increase the quality of working relationships that you may already have:

Don’t sit back and wait – make the first move towards building better relationships. After all, your colleagues may be waiting for you to make the first move, just like you are.

Offer support, especially when it’s not expected, create new opportunities, and, if possible, help your colleagues make a quick win to show them you’re willing to be a true friend.

Listen and pay attention to your colleagues. What they say could be a subtle indication that they’re lonely and are looking for a companion or that they’re looking for someone to notice that they need help.

Always take a minute to ask how you can help – this can go a long way towards improving any relationship.

Even though it’s common to see coworkers bonding by complaining about your boss, other coworkers or company policy, negative conversations rarely build trust. So, remain positive even when your coworkers are being negative. Lend an ear and be a good listener but stay positive and point out to them how they could be seeing only one side of the story.

This, alone, can build plenty of trust because it indicates that you’re unlikely to talk poorly about them behind their backs.

Be a good team player even if you think your contribution is not as significant. Observe how your contribution is serving other people in your team and how you can improve your skills and knowledge to benefit your colleagues.

If you give someone your word, make sure you keep it. There’s no better way to destroy trust than to break a promise or not stand by your word.

How do friendships at work impact the health of a workplace?

Did you know that having a best friend at work makes you 7 times more likely to be engaged, better at communicating with customers, produce quality work, and are less likely to get injured on the job?

While there are real benefits of having real friendships at work, these are not just for you: Similarly, your company benefits from encouraging friendships at work too.

Research shows that having a best friend at work is a more powerful predictor of workplace outcomes than simply having a friend at work. In sharp contrast, those without a best friend in the workplace have just a 1 in 12 chance of being engaged.

Who you are with is the single best predictor of higher wellbeing and engagement than what you are doing at your workplace. Some evidence suggests that even idle chit-chat can lead to significant increases in productivity.

Gallup had discovered that employees who agreed to the statement ‘I have a best friend at work’, belonged to the most productive workgroups. When the word ‘best’ was changed to ‘close’ or ‘good’ or was entirely excluded, the workgroups demonstrated reduced productivity, suggesting a strong relationship between a best friend at work and productive workgroups.

Does this change your perspective about how we value real friendships at work?

Beyond just productivity and engagement, Gallup has also discovered that employees who reported having a best friend at work were:

43% more likely to have received praise or recognition for their work in the last seven days

28% more likely to report being made aware of their progress in the last six months

27% more likely to recognize that the mission of their company makes their job feel important

21% more likely to report that they have the opportunity to do what they do best every day

The importance of engaged employees and the value they add to your business are immeasurable. It’s safe to predict that having a best friend at work is the key to effectively integrating change. Encouraging real friendships at work can effectively aid stress management, improve retention, performance, and productivity. This is the definition of a healthy workforce and this is great news for employers.

Are friendships at work always good?

In spite of these benefits, however, friendships at work are not without their disadvantages. A study from Rutgers University is a starting point to demonstrate that these friendships may not really be the blessings in disguise many make them out to be.

The study concluded that the friendships between insurance company employees had a negative indirect effect on job performance due to distractions from idle chit-chat and breaks taken to socialize with friends at work. One caveat, however, is that researchers also observed boosts in performance resulting from work friendships.

In another study conducted among retail sales employees, they found that the emotional exhaustion of maintaining these relationships led to a decrease in job performance-related indicators. The researchers concluded, therefore, that friendships at work are really a mixed bag.

This is especially the case when promotions put one friend in charge of another, for instance. This can create power clashes, resulting in emotional and psychological fatigue. The distractions that arise as a result of work friendships could also result in lowered productivity.

The conclusion? Foster friendships and maintain them professionally for a healthier workforce

Friendships at work are beneficial and can create a very pleasant work culture for everyone within a particular workplace. That being said, it’s important to nurture these relationships professionally – during work hours, at least – to prevent personal conflict and the resulting loss of productivity.

Given the research demonstrating the positives of developing real friendships in the workplace, nurture this type of relationship with your colleagues to improve your engagement, performance, and happiness at work.